According to the latest data, around 3% of the world’s population – around 375 million people – are vegetarian.
Some countries, like Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Germany, India, Israel, Jamaica, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan and Vietnam, have as much as one-tenth of their population being vegetarian.
Vegetarianism seems to have gained increasing popularity due to the rising awareness that it is good for animal rights and the environmental, as well as its positive effects on physical and mental health.
There are many types of vegetarians, for example:
- Vegans – the strictest type of vegetarians who do not consume any animal products, animal-derived ingredients, eggs or dairy products.
- Ovo-vegetarians – who do not consume any meat, poultry, seafood or dairy products, but take eggs.
- Lacto-vegetarians – who do not consume any meat, poultry, seafood or eggs, but take dairy products
- Ovo-lacto-vegetarians – who do not consume any meat, poultry or seafood, but take dairy products and eggs.
In Asia, Buddhist vegetarians do not eat certain vegetables such as onions, garlic, chives, shallots and leeks for religious reasons.
In addition, some Buddhists go vegetarian during special festivals like Guan Yin Dan (the birth of Guan Yin), as well as the first day (Chu Yi) and 15th day (Shi Wu) of the Chinese lunar calendar.
Meat-free products are also becoming more trendy in the mainstream food industry.
The success of American food company Beyond Meat’s plant-based meat substitutes in the overseas market has boosted the confidence of local retailers to grab a share of this niche market’s pie in our nation.
Indeed, certain F&B outlets have started introducing meat-free dishes in their menu to cater to a wider range of health-conscious consumers in Malaysia.
A silent killer
According to multiple studies, the consumption of a vegetarian diet is more consistently associated with a reduction in mean systolic and diastolic blood pressure than an omnivorous diet.
The reduction in systolic blood pressure ranged from 2.66 to 5.47mmHg, while the reduction in diastolic blood pressure ranged from 1.69 to 2.2mmHg.
Those on a vegan diet demonstrated a greater reduction in systolic blood pressure (3.12mmHg) and diastolic blood pressure (1.75mmHg) than those on a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet.
Therefore, scientific evidence suggests that adopting a vegetarian diet can play a key role in the prevention and overall management of hypertension.
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is defined as a persistent elevation of systolic blood pressure of more than 140mmHg or diastolic blood pressure of more than 90mmHg.
The normal range for blood pressure is 90-120mmHg for systolic blood pressure, and 60-80mmHg for diastolic blood pressure.
If your blood pressure reading falls below the lower end of this range, you are considered to have hypotension, or low blood pressure.
According to the 2019 National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS), the frequency of hypertension in our population is around 30%.
This is slightly higher than that of our neighbouring countries.
For example, the next highest country is the Philippines at 28%, followed by Vietnam at 25.1%.
Brunei clocks in at the lowest rate with only 5% of its population having hypertension.
Hypertension is often called a silent killer as most people are unaware they have this condition due to its lack of warning signs or symptoms.
However, some may experience symptoms such as headaches, short moments of light-headedness, and more frequent than usual nosebleeds.
If the hypertension is left untreated, these early signs may deteriorate to more severe symptoms like unexplained fatigue, nausea, vomiting, confusion, chest pain, anxiety and muscle tremors.
If still left untreated, it can finally lead to multiple medical conditions such as heart attacks, stroke, an enlarged heart, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and kidney damage.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are multiple risk factors that increase the odds of developing hypertension.
These risk factors can be either modifiable or non-modifiable.
Modifiable risk factors include:
- Excessive salt consumption
- A diet high in saturated fats
- Low intake of fruits and vegetables
- A sedentary lifestyle
- Unhealthy habits such as drinking alcohol and smoking, and
- Being overweight or obese.
Non-modifiable risk factors, on the other hand, include:
- A family history of hypertension
- Being over 65 years of age, and
- Having other diseases such as diabetes or kidney disease.
Hypertension also has a genetic link.
For example, the CYP17A1 gene marker is involved in the impairment of steroid hormone synthesis, which may indirectly affect salt metabolism.
Another gene marker, NEDD4L, is known to elevate sodium (salt) reabsorption and thereby increase the risk of hypertension, while the FGF5 marker is known for its significant association with the occurrence of hypertension.
Genetic testing can be done as an indication of how much your genes predispose you towards developing certain diseases.
However, this form of testing is not a method of diagnosis for any disease or health condition.
Generally, genetic testing is based on the presence of SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) that are associated with certain diseases.
It is important to note that having the SNPs associated with a particular disease does not mean that you will definitely develop the disease.
Having said that, you could still develop the condition even though no associated SNP is detected.
Difference in nutrients
One of the possible explanations for vegetarian diets having a lowering effect on high blood pressure could be the difference in nutritional values between vegetarian diets and omnivorous diets.
The total energy, total fat, cholesterol, protein and sodium are comparatively lower in the former than in the latter.
A scientific report indicated that by comparison with omnivorous diets, vegetarian diets were associated with a significantly lower concentration of total blood cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol and HDL-cholesterol.
The density of fibre and iron was also comparatively higher in vegetarian diets than in omnivorous diets.
One should note that high dietary fat and sodium are recognised as risk factors for hypertension.
Due to the differences in nutritional values in vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets, the amount of triacylglycerols (the main constituents of body fat in humans) in the former are comparatively lower than in the latter.
The beneficial effects of a vegetarian diet mean that vegetarians face a lower risk of developing hypertension and dying from other illnesses.
For example, a study showed that vegetarians are at lower risk of dying from ischaemic heart disease at an overall risk ratio of 0.75:1, compared to non-vegetarians.
The reduced risk of dying from ischaemic heart disease was most prominent in those aged below 65 (risk ratio of 0.55).
The risk of vegetarians dying from ischaemic heart disease is 45% lower than non-vegetarians within the same age group.
One should also note that to yield a favourable effect, one should be a vegetarian consistently for at least six months.
It is worth remembering, however, that being a vegetarian will not make a person healthy overnight.
To see improvements in health, it is essential to plan well, include a variety of ingredients, and make the diet part of an overall healthy lifestyle.
For individuals who wish to reduce their meat intake, but feel it is too difficult, a gradual or partial switch may be a viable option.
Most importantly, think wisely before you “go green”!
Dr Lee Tze Yan is a lecturer in molecular medicine at Perdana University. Dr Lee Kai Wei is a post-doctoral research fellow in medical sciences at Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman. This article is courtesy of Perdana University, which is celebrating their 10th anniversary this year. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.
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